April 06, 2006

Meth Stings

The DEA continues its war on meth, now conducting sting operations on Georgia convenience store owners. This time the targets are in northern Georgia, as reported in the April 6, 2006 New York Times (here). As in other similar sting operations throughout the country, the targets are primarily immigrants from India, many named Patel. In the recent Georgia stings, 23 of the 24 targeted stores were owned and operated by Indians.

Undercover officers approach the stores and ask to buy quantities of Sudafed and other products from which meth can be made. The conversations are tape recorded, of course, then used as evidence against the store owners and employees.

In my experience with such cases, there are five major problems with sting operations of this type:

1. The targets' English ability is limited. 2. The law about quantities they can sell is not all that clear. 3. The undercover agents are vague and ambiguous about their illegal intentions. 4. The DEA's transcripts of the tapes are frequently wrong. 5. The DEA Investigative Reports (written reports done after the conversations took place) are often creatively dead wrong.

Let's start with the law. From Title 21, United States Code, Section 802, page 1291: (C) Offenses involving listed chemicals Any person who knowingly or intentionally--

(1) possesses a listed chemical with intent to manufacture a controlled substance except as authorized by this subchapter;

(2) possesses or distributes a listed chemical knowing, or having reasonable cause to believe, that the listed chemical will be used to manufacture a controlled substance except as authorized by this subchapter...

Here we have the problem of a convenience store "knowing or having reasonable cause to believe." In other criminal laws, such as fraud, "known or should have known" is used in much the same way. This poses interesting problems for non-native speakers of English, whose inferencing skills fall far short of those of native speakers. One of the common strategies of undercover operations is to drop in hints of illegality, hoping that the targets will pick up on them and say something incriminating. Such hints may be clear to native speakers but they can go right by non-natives easily. Even if the officers manage to be even a little bit explicit, such as mentioning the words, "meth," or "cook," they often say them in ways that are either unclear or difficult to hear.

I don't know the facts in the Georgia cases, but would be surprised if the agents didn't talk the same way they did in a Detroit case I worked on a couple years ago, where the agent dropped his voice to near silence when he uttered "meth" the only time he used it during six conversations. The prosecution celebrated this use of "meth," but the tape wasn't very supportive. The government's transcript reads:

Owner: What are you doing with these? It's none of my business but--

Agent: Makin' money, makin' meth.

Unfortunately for the government's claim, this was a gross mistranscription of the language on the tape, which was:

Owner: What are you doing with these? It's none of my business but--

Agent: Makin' money ma'am, makin' mo--(inaudible second syllable).

It's hard to imagine how mo-- can be understood as meth and the simple count of syllables doesn't add up to "makin' meth."

The agent also said something about "cooking up" two times, both of which yielded no response at all from the store owner, who continued on with her topic, as though she didn't even hear these words. Some of the Georgia defendants said they thought when the agent mentioned cooking," he was talking about a barbecue cook-out. In the Georgia cases, the ACLU filed documents including a sworn statement by one of the informants in the sting, in which he claimed that federal investigators were sent to Indian-owned stores "beacuse the Indians' English wasn't good."

What a way to run a country.

Posted by Roger Shuy at April 6, 2006 04:22 PM